Ryan Chartrand

The Central Coast has its fair share of famous sites and attractions-the rolling Nipomo Dunes, the funky little town of Avila Beach, and Montana de Oro State Park among other prominent locales-all celebrated ecological features of the region that attracts millions of tourists each year.

Yet, for one of the most unknown but ecologically profound features of the area, the Pecho Coast located south of Montana de Oro State Park and north of Port San Luis Obispo, attraction for this scenic landscape of several minute canyons and immense oak trees spawned from the attention garnered by the controversial development of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.

Written by John Wills, a lecturer in modern American history at the University of Kent, UK, “Conservation Fallout: Nuclear Protest at Diablo Canyon” is an analysis of one of the most contested nuclear power facilities in the nation that explores the struggle of industry rationale versus conservation ideals, and the two polemic trains of thought concerning nuclear energy’s affect on the environment that arose during the battle for Diablo Canyon.

Exploring the developments that led to one the largest national protests of nuclear energy, the author discusses the ramifications of the debate on whether a nuclear power plant should be build along the Pecho Coastline or the land should be a protected habitat.

A particular area of discussion is the effect that Diablo Canyon had on the Sierra Club. In the late 1960s, this led to a furious debate of whether the Pecho Coast, an area ranging in description and importance from a “treeless slot” to the “next Yosemite,” should be bartered to the energy industry to protect other regions of ecological importance.

The author notes that the aftermath, settled by a climactic vote by the Sierra Club to give up on an initiative to protect the Pecho Coast from the construction of a nuclear power plant in favor of other conservation projects (in this case, protecting the Nipomo Dunes from harboring a nuclear reactor) caused a division of ideals that eventually led to the rise of environmentalism-environmental protection without compromise.

Pinning the debate over Diablo Canyon as key to ushering in an era of revolutionary environmental thought, Wills examines the environmentally conscious factions that arose during the construction of the power plant including local communal groups such as the Mothers for Peace and the Abalone Alliance. And of highest importance, Wills illuminates the two distinct views held by both PG&E and environmental groups as to the effect of a nuclear reactor in an ecologically rich environment.

Delving into the rationale of environmental groups, Wills makes a superb effort to line out the fears that environmental groups had about the negative effects that the power plant could potentially reap on the local environment, from a severe lack of faith in the safety of nuclear facilities in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident, and the association of atomic power with massive devastation and irreparable nuclear fallout.

In contrast, Wills presents the ideals of those who had strong faith in the potential of the atom-the benefits of channeling massive amounts of energy “out of nothing”-the rationale that nuclear energy, by eliminating the reliance on depleting foreign oil reserves and the emission of pollution into the atmosphere, and the ability to provide cheap energy, was the bastion for environmental protection and energy production.

There are a vast number of other issues discussed by Wills pertaining to Diablo Canyon, such as the conflict of environmental protection from the construction of power plants versus the inability of existing power plants to keep up with California’s growing demand for energy, or PG&E’s ironic decision to build several power plants near active fault lines.

But of considerable note is the emphasis that Wills has on the “ironic” hand that zones quarantined off for nuclear power plants, particularly Diablo Canyon, have in sustaining a rich ecology.

With their high-rise barbed-wire fences surrounding an immense scale of private land, Wills makes an interesting case for the inadvertent environmentally positive effects that nuclear facilities have by keeping lands untainted by the imprint of man (outside of the facility)-in effect supporting the ideals of environmentalism.

Also of worthy consideration is Wills philosophical views on the debate of nuclear energy and how environmentalists have largely failed in their attempts for compromise. Environmentalists vehemently tried to present the environment and humanity as two distinct entities, and instead of “splitting the atom and splitting themselves,” Wills suggests that they should recognize the two as symbiotic if not one in the same.

So if you are interested in the politics behind the construction of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, “Conservation Fallout” provides an insightful look into one of the most profound debates of the benefits versus the fears of nuclear energy and the negative images associated with it that enthralled a Central Coast community and a nation.

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